The lines and pairings look pretty much set for the Vancouver Canucks, but what about special teams?
The penalty kill, in particular, could play a big role in the decisions the Canucks make over the next few days before the start of the regular season. It may be what keeps both Brandon Sutter and Jay Beagle in the lineup and could determine which young defencemen make the roster.
Travis Green snuck some special teams practice past the media mid-week, apparently running power play and penalty kill drills during the morning skate before Wednesday's scrimmage. That morning skate was closed to the media, which raised some eyebrows. Green, always known for keeping his cards close to his chest, wants to keep a few more secrets before opening night.
At Friday's practice, however, the Canucks ran some special teams drills that let slip some of the team's plans.
Projecting the power play
The first power play unit was exactly what fans would expect: Quinn Hughes quarterbacking at the point, J.T. Miller on the left side, Elias Pettersson on the right, and Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser interchanging between net-front and the bumper in the slot. It's a unit that saw a lot of success last season and one that should be successful again.
"It's nice to go out there with a little experience with these guys in pretty much the same group, having it together. It's become seamless," said Miller.
The Canucks didn't, however, run a regular second power play unit. Instead, it had players that one wouldn't expect to see on a Canucks power play, like Tyler Motte and Brogan Rafferty. One player of interest that did skate on the power play unit was Nils Höglander.
That's noteworthy because the rest of the players that would likely be on the second power play unit were instead auditioning for a spot on the penalty kill.
Nate Schmidt was on the second unit for the Vegas Golden Knights and will likely fill the same role for the Canucks, potentially bumping Alex Edler from the power play altogether. He was on the penalty killing side in drills today, however, a role he also played in Vegas. He was alternately paired with Olli Juolevi and Jordie Benn. Assuming Juolevi makes the team, he will likely need to play on the penalty kill, something he did a lot last year in Utica.
Three forwards likely to join Schmidt and Höglander on the second power play unit are Adam Gaudette, Jake Virtanen, and Tanner Pearson. Gaudette and Virtanen were particularly effective on the power play last season — the two were the most efficient power play point producers, leading the Canucks in points per hour on the power play.
That would make the two power play units as follows:
Hughes - Pettersson
Boeser - Horvat - Miller
Schmidt - Pearson
Höglander - Gaudette - Virtanen
Penalty kill auditions
Instead of practicing the power play, Gaudette, Virtanen, and Pearson were on the penalty killing units in Friday's drills. For Gaudette and Virtanen, that would be a new development. Neither played on the penalty kill at all last season.
"We definitely tried some different players today on the penalty kill," said Green. "We had Gaudette today, Jake, [Antoine] Roussel — just looking at different scenarios. Obviously, Jake's skating is something that we've thought that maybe he'd be a good penalty killer, but for young, skilled players that come out of Juniors or college, they've always played the power play and to become good penalty killers, sometimes that's harder than being a good power play guy. We're going to try to do this a couple days, where we get a look at a couple different penalty killers."
Each of Gaudette, Virtanen, and Roussel skated with an established penalty killer in drills: Gaudette with Pearson, Virtanen with Jay Beagle, and Roussel with Brandon Sutter. While Roussel has experience on the penalty kill in the past, he played less than a minute on the penalty kill last season.
If Gaudette and Virtanen can earn a regular spot on the penalty kill, that would add a much-needed dimension to their games and make the Canucks lineup a great deal more versatile. Gaudette, in particular, could make it less essential to have both Sutter and Beagle in the lineup — while both veterans provide value on the penalty kill, they have struggled a 5-on-5.
Likewise, if Juolevi can impress on the penalty kill, an area where he thinks he can make a difference for the Canucks, that will make it much easier to keep him in the lineup over a veteran like Benn.
There's one other player whose absence on the penalty killing side of things might make it more difficult for him to make the Canucks roster: Brogan Rafferty. The young defenceman took reps on the power play side of things in practice, but Green has pointed out the need for a young defenceman to play on the penalty kill.
"I didn't play [the penalty kill] a lot in Utica," said Rafferty. "I think had five or ten shifts total on the penalty kill all year. We had a lot of great penalty killers down there. It's something I did in college quite often, but when I went to Utica, we had guys that had been there and knew the systems better than me. I know I'm capable of doing that, so it's something where I'm always watching video and trying to add to my game and be one of those guys that, if they need me to do that, then I'm comfortable doing it."
For the moment, at least, Rafferty isn't being looked at as a potential penalty killer, unlike his fellow young defenceman, Juolevi.